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Originally published: 2012-09-28 09:42:57
Last modified: 2012-09-28 09:44:47

Veterans' service officer to retire

When Donna Lyons started working in the Watauga County Veterans’ Service Office, her clients included 28 World War I veterans and two widows of men killed in the 1898 Spanish-American War.

As she prepares for retirement more than 31 years later, Lyons’ clients have changed quite a bit. But the passion she holds for her career and for the families she assists has never wavered.

“The work here is rewarding because you get to work with true heroes,” Lyons said. “They never played basketball. They never had their name in big lights. But you worked with the heroes, and that made it worth it.”

When Lyons was hired as the assistant county officer, she was newly married and simply looking for a job that paid the bills. She said she never imagined she would enjoy the work as much as she did.

The veterans’ service office, a county department, helps veterans and their families apply for benefits through the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. That can include health-care services, disability compensation, pension programs for wartime veterans and scholarships for dependent children.

Lyons compared the job to detective work, building a case and seeing which scenarios apply.

“Every case is unique,” she said. “We have no two cases that are the same.”

Lyons said she counted one year and found that she had logged more than 5,000 in-person or telephone contacts with veterans or their families. Today, the office is seeing more Korean War veterans and Vietnam veterans as they enter their older years, Lyons said.

They also are seeing an increase in Gulf War veterans, she said.

The scope of work can be a challenge, but it’s the human side of the equation that makes her job truly difficult, she said.

Her father was a Korean War veteran, and her oldest son, T.J., served with the N.C. National Guard for six years, she said, so each veteran’s story echoed. But her hardest year of work came in 2004, when her younger son, Todd, deployed to Iraq.

“I could not think in the terms of VA work because I was thinking for a year with a mother’s heart,” she said. “ … It gave me a new appreciation for past mothers and mothers now that see their children in that situation.”

It may sound trite, but Lyons truly cares about those she serves, said Paul Caudill, a district service officer for the state who has worked with her for about six years.

“She’s a great lady, and, like everybody else, I’m going to miss her,” Caudill said. “ … She really does go to bat for the people who file claims with her.”

April Pope, veterans’ service assistant in Watauga County, said Lyons often has gone above and beyond what was needed.

“Her experience, and training underneath her, has been invaluable,” Pope said. “I feel very honored to have worked with her.”

After she walks out of the office for the last time today, Lyons said she isn’t sure how she will spend her days of retirement.

With deer hunting season starting soon, Lyons said her favorite hobby will probably get more attention this year.

She may eventually look into part-time work just to stay busy.

“I can guarantee it won’t involve any type of forms,” she said, with a laugh.

She also hopes to spend more time with her husband, Craig Lyons, her mother, children and three grandchildren.

But on Monday morning, her only desire is to brew a pot of coffee and sit in her rocking chair on her front porch in Boone.

“I always said I would leave when I still enjoyed my job as much as I did the first day I walked in,” Lyons said. “And I do.”